10 ways to take your Ironman racing to new heights this year

Coach Joe Beer presents his top tips and sessions to take your long-distance performance up a notch

(Image: Jonny Gawler)

There’s no getting away from the fact that an Ironman is a long day of racing. But on the plus side this also means there are more opportunities to make tweaks and changes that will actually result in significant finish-time gains.

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Tweak things positively by even 3% over an average 12hr day and you’ve made a 21-minute difference. Which is huge! And now is the ideal time to start making these little tweaks and changes to your training, so that you can reap the rewards come race time.

>>> Ironman: how many hours of training a week do you need?

So, without further ado, here are my 10 tips and their respective targeted sessions, each designed to propel you to the finish line faster and more efficiently this race season…

1. Key sessions count

These sessions are key to your progression. The idea is to build for three weeks and then recover for one, so that you reach race day feeling like you’re ready to take on the 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42.2km run 

Optional

Warm-up: 15mins steady effort in chosen sport. 

Swim

Main session

200m fast then 5 x (100m sight & breathe every 4th stroke, 100m bilateral, 100m breathing to either side, 100m race pace). Increase to 7 and 9 reps on weeks 2 and 3 before backing off to 3 reps on week 4. 

Cool-down

Work on any technique weaknesses.

Triathlete in swim training

>>> Sub-1hr session: Perfect your Ironman swim pacing

Bike

Main session 

65miles mid–upper Zone 1, feeding just below race levels. Increase to 85 and 95 miles in weeks 2 and 3 before backing off to 35–40miles in week 4.

Cool-down 

10mins light spinning and 10mins light jog to loosen posture and legs.

Run

Main session 

12–14miles mid–upper Zone 1, feeding just below your race levels. Increase to 15–17 and 18–20 miles in weeks 2 and 3 before backing off to 9 miles in week 4. 

Cool-down

Light spinning on turbo 10mins, self massage and light stretching.

Female triathlete in run training

2. Smash it 

Strong bikers run better. But it’s easy to overlook bike strength sessions in favour of endurance training. Don’t make that mistake.

Be sure to include a quality session once a week to improve your biking strength and lactate recycling. Regularly riding at efforts around 80% will make it easier to ride comfortably at 55% on race day.

>>> Chrissie Wellington on… Preparing for a hilly Ironman

Bike

Warm-up: 10mins steady effort.
Build set: 5mins building up to threshold for 1min. 

Main session 

HIT intervals: 6 x 4mins in aero position at 88–90% HRmax/80% peak power, with a 2–4min recovery between.

The key to the session is to be able to complete all the reps, which means not emptying your fuel tank too early, so build into the efforts.

Alternative

10-mile time trial with a second half harder than the first half by 5%.

Cool-down 

10mins light spinning + 10mins light jog to loosen posture and legs.

Triathlete on the turbo trainer

3. Strong not speedy

Quality run sessions are also vital for building run strength. Find an incline that takes 5–7mins to run, with a soft surface, so you engage good mechanics and reduce impact damage as you increase your oxygen use.

Remember that an Ironman marathon is not a pure marathon: you’re running it fatigued after having ridden 112 miles, so being able to maintain good form when tired is crucial.

Run

Warm-up: 10mins steady running.

Build session: 5 reps building up to threshold for 1min uphill then easy jogging back down, then turn and start the next rep.

Main set

Intervals: 5 x 5mins uphill at 86–90% HRmax, then jog back down slowly for recovery. Cool-down 10mins light jog + 10min turbo spin and stretching.

We continue Joe Beer’s guide to taking your Ironman performances up a notch…

4. Course realism

Be realistic about your performance expectations given the course you’ll be racing on. Split and finish times can vary massively.

Take Scott Neyedli’s results for example: Lanzarote 9:04hrs vs Western Australia 8:17hrs – almost 10% slower.

Many age-groupers will benefit from riding on target power and not average speed during the majority of the race. This reduces bike split over-exuberance.

Bike

Warm-up

10–20mins steady effort.

Main session

Race-pace intervals: 4 x 20mins over similar terrain to your target race at around 55%–60% peak power, feeding at race levels (e.g. 50–75g/hr of carbohydrate). Drift up to 65–70% if the terrain is steep, but the closer to 55% you can remain the better your race-day effort ‘learning’. 10mins active recovery riding in between. (Advanced option is 6 x 30mins)

Add-on 3mins light spinning, then straight into 20–40min run at conservative race speed to see if your pacing is realistic for race day.

Cool-down

On turbo or with light walking after race-pace running.

Joe Beer in bike training

5. Take it easy

Be flexible and learn when to take it easy. You have to be consistent to improve, but there will be times when you need a low-impact pool session to assess your health and mental well-being. 

Swim

Warm-up

15mins steady effort.

Build set

5 x 100m fast to open up the anaerobic pathways and get a feel for faster swimming. 

Main session

5 x 400m blocks with 1min rest; aim to repeat times and feel strong.

Cool-down 

4 x 100m, mixing pace as: 25m fast arms; 25m relaxed; 25m fast kicks; 25m normal.

Triathlete in swim training

6. Grit 

It’s Ironman, it’s going to hurt. Especially on the run. You need to be prepared for it.

Chris Goodfellow, 2013 Forestman winner, says: “Find something you can focus on and hold on to it. When things start to hurt, hold onto it with everything you can!”

Run 

Warm-up

10mins relaxed running <75%HRmax on your chosen loop of approx 3 miles. 

Main session

1st loop: Around 80% HRmax.

2nd loop: Speed up to around threshold (85% HRmax), starting to focus on your ‘rock’. 3rd loop: Take it up to around 87%, to test your mental control and ability to maintain good economy despite working hard.

Cool-down

7mins very light jog back, walking remainder and stretching after recovery drink.

7. Self assessment 

To crack Ironman you have to learn from the bad days. Set aside an hour or two every couple of weeks to look back over your training diary.

Assess everything from the key sessions and big weeks to your kit, taper period and race-day performance. You need to go through it all with a fine-tooth comb to discover what you need to improve.

It’s rarely just ‘more training’; often the simplest of changes make the biggest difference.

We finish our guide to taking your Ironman performances up a notch…

8. Long view

Think about building your Ironman ‘career’ through this season and beyond. This means looking at those long days that really test your endurance capabilities.

Professionals will do 200–250km rides, swim 5–6km sessions or run over 40–50km from time to time to test their limits. Whatever your limits seem to be, it’s vital to test them.

Optional

Warm-up of 15mins steady effort in chosen sport.

Swim

Main session 

Swim longest continuous swim distance you have yet to complete.

Cool-down

Very light sculling, some alternative stroke swimming or pool running.

Triathlete in swim training

Bike 

Main session

Bike longest continuous distance you have yet to complete. Bring all the spares you can, lots of fuel and cash.

Cool-down

10–15mins light walk, jog or run to loosen the posture and legs.

Run

Main session

Split the day into two or even three sessions and accumulate the longest distance you have yet to complete. This is the hardest of the three, so you may want to do a test of two or three runs to see what you can do then try to beat it two weeks later.

Cool-down

After each run, light spin on turbo or walk and self-massage plus a recovery drink or whey protein drink (c.25g) to improve recovery.

9. Strength matters

Most Ironman athletes include strength training in their programme. Though it’s seen by some as a nice bonus, it’s actually vital for most Ironman pro athletes who are typically older than what is believed to be the prime endurance age range (around 35).

Strength training helps reduce age-related muscle loss, the chances of overuse injuries and the effects of reduced hormonal recovery status.

Joe Beer doing strength work

Gym

Warm-up

5mins steady aerobic whole-body exercise, e.g. rowing.

Main session

Light set of 12 reps before each hard set. Build resistances starting at 12-rep maximum (RM) to a peak of around 8RM, for 1–3 sets.

Exercises: lat pull-down/seated row; leg press/squat; calf raises/seated barbell calf raise; upright row/lateral raises; hack squat/lunges, hip flexion/step-ups, lying dumbbell row/kneeling one arm row; leg press.

Cool-down

Hop on the treadmill (or run home) for 10–20mins.

10. Double-run day

Get a feel for Ironman running by doubling up your runs. Run in the morning, let your body recover over the day and then do a second run in the afternoon/evening. Keep it to 2.5hrs or less. 

First run, outdoors

Morning, outdoor, soft surfaces. Warm-up of 10mins steady running.

Main session

75%HRmax steady session of 45–80mins.

Cool-down

8mins light walking and possible short spin.

Joe Beer in run training

Second run, on treadmill

Warm-up

10mins steady running building up to 75–80%HRmax.

Main session 

45–60mins at best realistic target Ironman pace; you may get heart-rate drift due to lack of moving air. Take on carb drink/gels (15–20g every 20mins) safely without stopping or getting off treadmill. 

Cool-down

8mins light walking + 10min gym bike spin, recovery drink and stretching.

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For lots more long-distance advice head to our Training section